Live theater, unsolicited commentary. From Detroit to Lansing.


Populated entirely by the students of Wayne State University's graduate repertory program in theater, the names and faces of the Hilberry Theatre become especially familiar over the course of a season. This was true even though I missed two of this season's early offerings, Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and Chekhov's The Seagull. In the absence of these ultimate classic's classics, the remaining four productions offered a variety of styles and moods, from an accessible and well-loved musical to a lesser-known nonlinear think piece that challenged audiences both intellectually and morally.

Among the first productions of the fall was The Fantasticks, a departure for this program that generally deals only in straight plays. The comparatively small cast of this production appeared sweetly diminuitive within the boldly colorful big-top design, yet their strong overall performances were undermined by some merely decent singing. Despite this critic's documented objections to the script, the Jesse Merz–directed production was greatly entertaining in the imaginative work behind its supporting roles, especially Jordan Whalen as an ancient thespian so decrepit, he was almost visibly decomposing. Closing the season was The Beaux' Stratagem, a late-Restoration comedy written and adapted — almost relay style — by three playwrights over three centuries. Director Anthony B. Schmitt cultivated a world absent of real danger or evil, in which the characters' flaws and misdeeds are due not to malevolence but to unawareness: that love will interfere with a plot to marry for money, that the plan to rob a local home has been found out and infiltrated, that Samantha L. Rosentrater's self-congratulatory surgeon is spectacularly, hilariously bad at her craft. Lavishly detailed sets and costumes adorned a production with ample visual stimuli and plenty of polite comic fodder, both of which helped complement a script too concerned with consequences to leave actions (or outcomes) in question.

January brought the flawless commedia dell'arte feats of The Servant of Two Masters, an exercise in humor gluttony by the entire company and director Lavinia Hart. With three or four major story lines and a few minor ones, the play is like a massive slice-of-life portrait of an entire town, and the production spared no excess from the giant multilevel set to the jokes flowing straight through the curtain call. Impeccable casting allowed the many, many characters to flex their various comedic muscles, none more so than the lovable hubris of Jason Cabral's pathetic Arlecchino. However, my personal favorite of the season was C.P. Taylor's supremely difficult Good, a story of political apathy in the face of rising Nazism that seemed designed to affront. The careful treatment of a tricky concept was a success for director David J. Magidson and the excellent ensemble cast. At the hub of the play's relationships, Edmund Jones navigated obstacles of emotion and form equally well, and the give-and-take interactions — in particular between his tepidly disapproving author character and the several women in his life — were reflective of absolutely stunning character work.

With a wealth of carefully selected students at its disposal, Hilberry is in a fairly unique position (at least in the current economy) to produce plays with very large casts; compared with smaller physical and economical scales at other area theaters, these busy, populated stages make for productions as detail-rich as a tapestry. In addition to its standard fare, however, the theater also seeks to offer its patrons some diversity: this season, in collaboration with the Jewish Ensemble Theatre, the Hilberry hosted the JET's late-spring production of Palmer Park, with talkbacks scheduled after nearly every performance. The company also encourages its viewers and subscribers to venture to the Bonstelle Theatre, Wayne State's main stage for its undergraduate program. Yet extracurricular events or no, the core Hilberry season overflowed with styles and forms, reminding viewers that "classical" theater actually has many faces.


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